Dear Family: The Jill Kidder Letters

In July of 1947, Jill Kidder moved to Yellowknife to join her husband Kendall. The newlywed couple, both veterans of World War II (she’d served as a corporal in the Air Force while he’d been a Naval officer) had met at a football game at Queen’s University in the fall of 1945. Years later, Kidder wrote: “By April 1947 I was pregnant, and Kendall didn’t want to stay at university, so he decided we’d go to a job with Transcontinental Resources in Yellowknife. Kendall went up in April, and I followed in July. What I remember most about the trip was a long stay in a dreadful hut at Hay River, with the windows crawling with horseflies, deerflies, blackflies –and wondering if this was really a good idea.” What follows are excerpts from a collection of letters Jill wrote to her family during their residence in Yellowknife between 1947-51.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Summer of ‘47

Fastened by bits of string and baling wire

Dearest Fam,

I just had my morning drink of Klim, picked some wild roses for the cabin, and am now waiting to meet Ken for lunch. It’s so hot you can scarcely breathe, and everything, including me, is covered with an inch of dust. Just like being back in the Dry Belt!

We have a brand-new little cabin (actually, a “tent frame” – wooden walls up to about three feet, then tent) at a sort of tourist camp run by a beautifully spoken Englishman who is at the moment digging up the muskeg (down to frost level, about a foot) to plant poplar trees around his cabins. The camp is halfway between the original town and the new townsite. The old town is absolutely fantastic. The peninsula and the two islands on which the town grew are just large hunks of bedrock, to which the town is fastened by bits of string and baling wire.     

The streets are full of weird old men

The whole town of Yellowknife is roaring drunk. The beer parlour opens at 8:00AM and stays open till 2:00 the next morning. The Legion Hall is across from the beer parlour and apparently stays open 24 hours a day. The streets are full of weird old men reeling about in their undershirts, and the lake is full of wet old men who didn’t quite make it to or from the liquor store, which is on an island.

Yellowknife is also one of the noisiest towns I ever heard. The beer parlour is in the middle of town and its patrons can be heard for blocks, the air is always full of small aircraft, there are dozens of kickers on the lake, everyone drives trucks and jeeps with the mufflers off, and to top it all off they are blasting at the Giant Mine, just down the lake. The noise goes on all the time – planes land and take off all night long, and the trucks are always rattling up and down the roads.

People simply can’t live here unless they’re making very high wages

The cost of things up here is unbelievable. Butter is 75 cents a pound, heating oil is 35 cents a gallon (almost everyone burns oil. It cost the Parkers $100 a month to heat their five-room house last winter), water is 11 cents a gallon, and a five-pound roast of beef costs about $4.50. Hardware and dry goods are at least double Outside prices – the cheap, five-cents-each kitchen glasses cost twenty cents, for instance. The Bay stocks poor quality goods in all departments and charges fantastic prices for them. People simply can’t live here unless they’re making very high wages. (For context: Jill notes that her husband’s salary was $300 a month.)

The wanderlust

The roads on the Rock were built some time after the buildings were created, and are most peculiar. They wind in between buildings, giving barely enough room for one car, and at least half of the buildings have their backs to the road. As I said, there are enormous hunks of rock all over the place – they couldn’t be blasted out without removing several buildings. Nobody seems to mind, though – they just drive right over them. Lee was telling me that when she first arrived there were only two cars here, and they were both destroyed in a head-on collision on the road around the Rock.

Another peculiarity of this city is the mobility of the buildings. Ever since I arrived the streets have been cluttered with tractors pulling houses and offices and warehouses to new sites. Today I went downtown and discovered that an enormous two-storey building that used to be here at the townsite is now down at the old town. The wanderlust, you know.

The Kidder family, minus father Kendall, in Vancouver 1957, shortly after leaving Yellowknife. L-R John, Margie (Margo), Annie (below), mother Jill, Michael.

BABIES AND EXPLOSIONS: Fall and Winter of ‘48

By the fall of 1948, Jill had had her first son, John, and was pregnant again, this time with her daughter, future movie star Margot.

The fish promptly died

Three barges blew up on the lake last week. They were loaded with dynamite and mine equipment and the Kidder’s storm windows, and the whole thing is very serious. Apparently the dynamite was packed carefully away with some lime which got wet and caught fire, which exploded the dynamite and set fire to some oxygen tanks and high octane gasoline which thoroughly destroyed all three barges – not a trace was left. At least one local mine is put completely out of business, because their mill was on one of the barges. All the hardware stores were getting their last orders in for the season, and don’t think they’ll be able to duplicate them before freeze-up. As I say, we lost our storm windows and the siding for the telephone building which is going to make things a little chilly around here this winter. There were also forty tons of cyanide in the load, and it is now lying at the bottom of the lake at Gros Cap, where our local fisheries are established. The fish promptly died, and the inhabitants of Yellowknife will probably do the same thing if the lake current changes.

Drainin’ Ma Cinnamon

Here’s a little vignette of life in Yellowknife. One of the town’s oldest inhabitants, a Mrs. Cinnamon, died a couple of weeks ago, and was taken to the undertakers. The undertaker is also the driver of the ambulance. The day after her death Ken was on the switchboard, and a call came in for the ambulance. Ken rang and rang, and there was no answer, so the party hung up. A few minutes later the ambulance driver phoned to see what was wanted. Ken said that there had been a call for him, but that they had given up, and this character answered cheerfully, “Well, I’m sorry about that, but I couldn’t come anyway. I’m drainin’ Ma Cinnamon.”

Margot was born on Oct. 17 of that year.

She’s very pretty

The baby is finally gaining properly, and I may be able to get her onto a normal schedule next month.  I have been feeding her every three hours, which is a heck of a chore, and takes about eight hours out of every day. She didn’t gain at all for about a month, and hasn’t gained enough since I got her home from the hospital, according to Dr. Stanton. Her skin was all dry and raw around her knuckles and other creases, and I haven’t been able to bath her yet – I just pour oil on her every day. All in all, she’s been rather a problem child. But she has stopped screaming all night, which she did for the first month. She’s very pretty, and is going to look like Johnny, I think.

GRUESOME NEWS: Winter and Spring of ‘49

A dreadful state of confusion

Everything here has been in a dreadful state of confusion, and I’ve been too busy to do anything.  I told you about my new neighbours, Merle and Grant Ford. Well, on the twenty-second of January, Grant left on a flight taking two passengers to O’Connor Lake, which is about a hundred and twenty miles south of here. By Monday the plane still hadn’t returned, so Max Ward, the head of the airline, set out to look for them. Grant got lost nearly every time he has gone on a flight, so nobody was particularly upset about it. However, by Wednesday it began to look more serious, and all the local aircraft started to search. On Friday the Air Force was called in.

In the meantime, Merle was going slowly mad. Dixie [Stevenson] and Marj Ward and I, meanwhile, were frantically trying to think of things to do to keep Merle’s mind occupied so that she wouldn’t worry too much, and Ollie [Stanton] was giving her sleeping pills.

On Tuesday night Merle was out visiting, when Dixie phoned and asked me to go over and look after her kids for a while. When I got there she told me that the charred wreck of the plane had been found about twenty miles from town, and that she and Ollie and Max were going to tell Merle. I stayed with the kids till they got back. Merle was completely dazed, and Ollie doped her and put her to bed.

Apparently the plane had run out of oil, and Grant had hit a tree while trying to land. Ollie said they were all killed instantly, and that the plane had burned immediately. Nobody can understand why Grant wasn’t flying over the main lake instead of having to try to land on a small one, and why he hadn’t filled the oil, and I suppose nobody will ever know.

Permanently bent

Yellowknife is at the lowest ebb it’s ever reached since I arrived. There is absolutely no money in town, and very little prospect of any arriving this spring, unless the price of gold goes up, which I’m against, although everybody in town gasps when I say so (that sentence got a little out of hand, didn’t it?). The business people are having a very tough time of it, and there are many rumours of stores having to close, and people moving Outside where prices are lower. There’s always a sag in activity at this time of year but it’s been sagging for so long now that I’m afraid it’s permanently bent.  

We almost feel as if we belonged to Canada

Last week a Mr. Hanson arrived by car in Yellowknife, having driven all the way from Toronto! It took him seven days, and his speedometer registered five thousand and some miles. It was a most exciting event for us – we almost feel as if we belonged to Canada now that you can drive out from here.

Gruesome news

Can’t think of any local news that isn’t fairly gruesome. For instance, a man at Con was killed yesterday by sticking his head into the shaft just as the cage was going by and getting it knocked off. And a prospector has been lost for about two weeks at Pine Point, on the south side of the lake – lagged behind the rest of his party and hasn’t been heard of since. And an Air Force Doug crashed a couple of days ago at the airport; nobody hurt, but the plane was a complete loss.

A great tribe of dog-lovers

The citizens of Yellowknife are having a feud with the town council about dogs. About three weeks ago a man broke into the council meeting carrying a paper bag containing the body of his puppy, which had been killed by huskies, and demanding that the council do something about it. There had been other complaints about the big dogs running in packs and attacking small dogs, so the city fathers decided to pass an ordinance demanding that all dogs be tied or on a leash. Well, the outcry was terrific! So last week, when the third reading was to take place, a great tribe of dog-lovers attended the council meeting. There was no organization of any kind – no spokesman, or anything sensible like that. The meeting started out very sedately with the usual reports and reading of the minutes. Then the chairman, who is a stupid and ineffectual little man, announced that the dog ordinance would now be discussed. And it was. By everybody, at the top of his lungs, and all at the same time. The dog-lovers screamed at the members, who screamed back. Ruth Stanton stood up and announced that if the law were passed she was going to tie her three dogs to the chairman’s clothesline, and then went into a long tirade about the damn bitches who cause all the trouble.

WEDDINGS AND ARSENIC: Spring of ‘50

Several features that Outside weddings lack

We married off one of the boys who worked for Ken, and lived here in the phone building. I’ve mentioned him before – Gordon Hornby – a wonderful kid. He has been going around with Kay Boffa for five years, since Kay was thirteen, and they suddenly decided one Saturday night to get married the following Wednesday, for no apparent reason. There were several features that outside weddings lack. For instance, the groom had his two front teeth knocked out in a hockey game about a week before, and the replacements hadn’t arrived, so he looked a little weird. As the bride’s father is a bush pilot, all his fellow pilots took to the air during the ceremony and buzzed the church so that you couldn’t hear a thing that was going on. There were four weddings in town that day, and all the businesses just closed their doors. A great day in the history of our fair city.

We are now having a great scandal in the town. One of the government lads here, the resident geologist, age nineteen, has got two of our local girls in trouble – as the saying goes – at the same time, which is carrying carelessness to the point of idiocy. All three of the people involved are nineteen years old, and it’s a pretty tragic business all round. Bill, the lad in question, sneaked off yesterday afternoon to get a license to marry [one of the girls]. [The other] somehow heard about it, and also heard why they were getting married, and went berserk, throwing things all over the drug store which Bill’s best friend runs, and smashing all the windows in the government office where Bill had gone to get the license. What has happened since I haven’t heard. He hasn’t actually married either of them yet, and of course it won’t really solve anything any way he does it. All three of them have been charging around town making scenes all over the place, so everyone knows all about it. He’ll be lucky if he gets out of town alive.

(He didn’t, Jill notes: “A short time after all this he fell down a mine shaft and was killed. I can’t remember whom he married, if anybody, or what became of the two babies.”)

I always did think the gold business was a little silly

The Giant roaster has contaminated the whole countryside with arsenic, and has caused innumerable problems. This is our run-off season, and the ice and snow which has been holding the arsenic all winter is running into the creeks and lakes, and lying in the puddles and ponds. All the birds are dying, and the fish in Baker Creek, near the Giant, have completely disappeared. They are afraid that the bay of the big lake may even be dangerous, and Giant doesn’t know what to do about the water supply for the mine. I’m beginning to think everybody up here is crazy except me. Nobody else sees anything absurd in the fact that we’re poisoning the whole countryside in order to get a commodity which is intrinsically worthless and which, after being dug up here, will be buried somewhere else. Oh well, I suppose it’s I who am insane, but I always did think the gold business was a little silly.

The Kidders left in the winter of 1951. Many thanks to John Kidder for providing EDGE YK with his mother’s letters.

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